First lady Laura Bush spoke for many conservatives when she excoriated the media's coverage of Iraq the other day. She complained that "the drumbeat in the country from the media ... is discouraging," and said "there are a lot of good things happening that aren't covered."
What are those things, one wonders? One can only imagine how Mrs. Bush can figure that they outweigh the horrors in Iraq. The United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than 1.6 million Iraqis have fled the country, about 7 percent of the population. But that means that an overwhelming 93 percent haven't left. Why doesn't the liberal media ever report that? About 120 Iraqis are killed per day, nearly 4,000 a month. But most are still living. Couldn't one of the morning shows do a soft feature on this heartwarming fact?
The conservative campaign against the mainstream media has scored notable successes. It exposed Dan Rather's forged National Guard memo and jumped all over Newsweek's absurd report of a Koran-flushing incident at Guantanamo Bay. The mainstream media is biased, arrogant, prone to stultifying group-think and much more fallible than its exalted self-image allows it to admit. It also, however, can be right, and this is most confounding to conservatives.
In Iraq, the media's biases happen to fit the circumstances. Being primed to consider any military conflict a quagmire and another Vietnam is a drawback when covering a successful U.S. military intervention, but not necessarily in Iraq. Most of the pessimistic warnings from the mainstream media have turned out to be right -- that the initial invasion would be the easy part, that seeming turning points (the capture of Saddam, the elections, the killing of Zarqawi) were illusory, that the country was dissolving into a civil war.
Partly because he felt it necessary to counteract the pessimism of the media, President Bush accentuated the positive for far too long. Bush allowed himself to be cornered by his media critics. They wanted him to admit mistakes, so for the longest time, he would admit none. They wanted him to fire Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, so for too long he kept him on. They wanted him to abandon "stay the course," so he stuck to it. In so doing, he eroded his own credibility and delayed making the major strategic readjustment he needed to try to check the downward slide in Iraq.
The "good news" that conservatives have accused the media of not reporting has generally been pretty weak. The Iraqi elections were indeed major accomplishments. But the opening of schools and hospitals is not particularly newsworthy, at least not compared with American casualties and with sectarian attacks meant to bring Iraq down around everyone's heads in a full-scale civil war. An old conservative chestnut has it that only four of Iraq's 18 provinces are beset by violence. True, but those provinces include 40 percent of the population, as well as the capital city, where the battle over the country's future is being waged.
In their distrust of the mainstream media, their defensiveness over President Bush and the war, and their understandable urge to buck up the nation's will, many conservatives lost touch with reality on Iraq. They thought that they were contributing to our success, but they were only helping to forestall a cold look at conditions there and the change in strategy and tactics that would be dictated by it.
"Realism" has gotten a bad name lately from its association with James Baker's daffy Iraq Study Group. But realism is essential in any war, and it is impossible without an ability to assimilate bad news, even bad news that comes from distasteful sources. Conservatives need to realize that something is not dubious just because it's reported by The New York Times, and that the media ultimately will be wrong about Iraq only if --fully acknowledging how bad it is there -- the Bush administration takes bold steps to reverse the tide.